D-Day Celebration: Engineer's vision builds bridges — literally and figuratively

Citizen Airman/Aug. 2017 -- Each year, in early June, Air Force C-130s drop hundreds of U.S. military paratroopers, as well as NATO allied and partner paratroopers, over the fields of Sainte-Mère-Église in the Normandy region of France. As a part of the annual D-Day anniversary celebration, veterans of the original airborne operations from 1944 watch the re-enactments, often with tears streaming down their cheeks.

They remember the night they jumped into that dark field, behind enemy lines, 73 years ago. They remember their brothers in arms who were lost and the sacrifices so many endured to ensure freedom for France and the Allies during World War II.

As the current-day paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Special Operations Command Europe’s 75th Ranger Division, the 4th BCT, and the 25th Infantry Division land at the drop zone, some of the more spry WWII veterans stand and slowly make their way out to a modern, man-made bridge. The bridge provides access from the drop zone, across the Le Merderet River, to the veterans’ and spectators’ viewing areas.

The elderly veteran paratroopers greet the younger jumpers who just re-enacted the D-Day airborne operation, then return to the distinguished visitors’ tent to enjoy the annual commemorative festivities in comfort.

Air Force Reservist Maj. David Simons Jr. built that bridge across the Le Merderet River. In doing so, he not only helped build a bridge between the newest and greatest generations, but he further cemented the foundation of friendship and partnership with French, German, British and Belgium allies.

Building Blocks

Simons isn’t your average individual mobilization augmentee. While he serves as a Reserve joint planner and political-military affairs officer for his assigned unit at U.S. European Command’s Plans Directorate in Stuttgart, Germany, the major lives and works full time as the South Team chief for U.S. Army Europe's Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Engineering in Wiesbaden, Germany.

His military career spans 21 years, as a prior-enlisted communications technician and engineer assistant, and now as an officer, civil engineer and architect in the civil engineer career field. Before moving to Europe, Simons served as chief of operations for the 352nd Civil Engineer Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, California. His deployment experience includes serving in the Farah, Helmand and Nimroz provinces of Afghanistan as the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s engineer/architect officer in charge.

However, Simons said his “greatest and most challenging career accomplishment, to date,” was applying his military and civilian engineering skills to envision, design, build, test and employ a heavyweight-bearing bridge, in under 10 days, in a foreign country.

"The synergy between Maj. Simons’ military and civilian jobs in theater offers us a great chance to leverage day-to-day operations with our longer-term planning process," said Army Col. Paul Riley, chief of USEUCOM’s Policy, Strategy, Partnering and Capabilities Directorate (J-5/8) Europe South and West Division. "Dave's Reserve experience and professional civilian credentials, to include his efforts with the Normandy D-Day anniversary events each year, make him a huge asset to the EUCOM J-5/8 team."

In 2014, with three years of experience planning and executing the Normandy D-Day ceremonies already under his belt, Simons realized the path the paratroopers took from their drop zone around the Le Merderet River presented many risks.

“A solution was needed to minimize those risks,” he said. “The brigade commander’s team, aware I was a professional engineer, approached me a month before the 2014 jump event to ask what I thought about improving access at the drop zone. I suggested building a bridge.”

Simons explained the potential solutions previously considered all came with challenges. For example, utilizing U.S. Army bridging assets to move tanks and trucks across rivers proved risky because the ground around the drop zone was too soft.

“Another idea involved cordoning off a walkway across the infamous La Fière Bridge, 200 meters away, but it would require a long, single-file walk through dense, unsecured crowds for the Soldiers,” he said. “So, my suggestion was the bridge.”

“The notification, requirements and design were presented approximately 30 days from execution,” said Army Maj. John Sivley, 72nd D-Day anniversary commemoration and airborne operations planner. By the time the planning team staffed the requirement and received the decision to support, a week had passed.

“David completed a design, built and emplaced the bridge in approximately 10 days,” Silvey said. “It is always refreshing to work with professionals like David and reassuring that our military places dynamic leaders who are solution-oriented across our government agencies.”

Simons’ bridge now allows 21st century paratroopers to cross the Le Merderet River safely and quickly. The bridge ensures a field ambulance can respond promptly to an injured jumper. In addition, it enables today’s young airborne Soldiers to meet and honor the 90-plus-year-old WWII veterans who landed on the same field, that fateful night, 73 years ago.

Reinforcing for the Future

Once Simons suggested building a bridge over the Le Merderet River, he knew immediately he needed a sturdy, yet portable, structure that could be placed each year for the D-Day celebration events and then easily removed and stored.

“The thought of transporting the bridge back to Germany for use in other exercises was costly and unrealistic,” he said. “This meant I had to work closely with the mayor of Sainte-Mère-Église to find a way to store the bridge long term. In the end, I was able to find funding and, due to the great relationship between the French and the U.S. military, was able to store the bridge in the city storage yard for future use.”

The wood truss bridge measures 6.5 feet wide by 60 feet long. It was designed and built to cross the Le Merderet River 200 meters south of the La Fière Bridge, which is 7 miles west of the town of Sainte-Mère-Église.

“The bridge had to be structurally easy enough to move so that a lightweight lifting system could access the marshy area and place the structure,” Simons said. “I had to keep the materials used as light as possible.”

After building the bridge, the next challenge for Simons and his team involved placing, stabilizing and testing the structure with a fully loaded field ambulance.

“While I was confident the bridge would hold, it didn’t stop the jabs from the onlookers,” he said. “As a structural bridge engineer by training, there was no question in my mind of failure; however, many of the Soldiers didn’t believe something so light could be so strong.”

As Simons climbed on the ambulance with its eight-member crew to cross the bridge for the first time, he heard bantering from the Soldiers on the riverbank: “I hope you know how to swim!”

“The best thing about this experience was the ability to mentor,” Simons said. “I feel it is important to train our future replacements.”

Functionality Achieved

Overall, the bridge served several functions. The planned functions included keeping jumpers out of the large crowds, allowing for maximum safety and ensuring injured jumpers were quickly evacuated across the bridge on a special field ambulance.

One additional, yet unexpected, function the bridge allowed for was the creation of a natural cordon point.

“The gendarmerie (French police) could now allow people off the road and into the field, as the cordon point established by the new bridge added to the area accessible by the audience,” Simons said.

With crowd density reduced on the causeway, it meant the mounted gendarmerie had freedom of movement along the roadway, increasing safety.

“The gendarmerie could also use the bridge as an over watch, as it stood higher than the land around it,” Simons said. “The head of the gendarmerie told me this provided police and medical teams freedom of movement for crowd control and safety.”

“This is a great story, and none of it — from the improved force protection to the jump and POTUS ceremony — would have happened without David,” said Army Lt. Col. James Shaw, U.S. Embassy France defense attaché, who worked with Simons on the project.

While Simons dealt with several U.S. and foreign agencies, it was working for the WWII veterans that inspired him the most.

“During jump day every year, many veterans in the VIP area always wanted to walk across the Le Merderet River on the La Fière Bridge, as they had on June 4, 1944,” Simons said. “To the veterans, crossing the bridge was symbolic of the great sacrifices made during D-Day and the weeks after.

In the past, the location of the VIP area, coupled with the men's inability to walk without aid, made it nearly impossible for most to navigate the distance on uneven ground, struggling through crowds, to stand on the La Fière Bridge again. However, the new bridge’s location now allows most veterans to make their memorial walk.

“Men who lost friends fighting for control of La Fière Bridge were able to cross the Le Merderet River again on the bridge I designed,” Simons said. “That, to me, was the best way I could honor their service to and sacrifice for our nation in WWII.”

Each year, Simons continues to bring his family and friends to the beaches and countryside of Normandy, France, to educate the next generation through honoring the warriors of the greatest generation.

(Horine is the IMA to the Air Combat Command public affairs director at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. She also performs public affairs duties for U.S. Air Forces Europe — Air Forces Africa. USAFE serves as the air component for both U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command.)